Autism Fact of the Day
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Strangers bonded by autism
April 18, 2006
SEVEN YEARS AGO, a doctor looked at my toddler son and immediately recognized autism.
Since then, I've seen it countless times in the halls of the mall, in grocery stores and restaurants. I will notice a child who seems a little bit different. Perhaps he's spinning in circles or avoiding eye contact, flapping his hands or repeating phrases from a movie. Right away, I'll sneak a glance at the mom, recognizing her, even though we've never met.
But Miss Manners hasn't come up with a delicate way to ask, "Is your kid autistic, too?"
And so we pass each other without a word, just a small nod to show our solidarity.
But I want to walk up to that mom and talk to her, because even though she looks nothing like me, somewhere inside we're the same: Mothers who know what it's like to lose a child who's sitting right next to you.
I want to ask her if she ever thought she'd shop for diapers for a 9-year-old. To know if she's ever sobbed as she scrubbed poop out of a carpet, wondering just how her life turned out this way.
If she, too, lies awake at night wondering what it would be like to hold a conversation with her first-born child. I would ask when she stopped speculating about which college her son would attend.
I want to know how she handles the dirty looks and even reprimands from strangers, because her child doesn't behave like the other kids.
We could almost speak another language to each other, using jargon like IEP, EEG, ESY and FAPE. After a while, the letters roll off your tongue so easily that you forget the rest of the world has no idea what you mean.
But this mom would know. She would know that single word with six letters can change your entire life.
I want to tell her that I, too, go years in between dates with my husband, because it's too hard to find a baby sitter. That I've been a mother for nine years, but my family has taken only one vacation. Our time, energy and money all go elsewhere.
I want to talk about how my husband and I decided not to have any more kids, not because we don't want a bigger family, but because after having two kids with autism, the genetic odds just don't seem to be in our favor.
Mostly, I want to know if she ever noticed the moment autism stopped being a tragedy and simply became a fact of life.
Of course, this mom and I are not exactly alike. In fact, besides autism, we might have nothing else in common.
That's the reality of autism: It can strike in just about any family.
As parents of children with autism, we cross all races and nationalities. We're rich and poor, single parents and married couples, conservatives and liberals. Some of us are shy; others are loud.
Just about anyone can be inducted into our club. In 20 minutes, there will be a new initiation.
That's how often a parent hears "Your child has autism."
This year, doctors will say that 24,000 times.
That's a lot of parents who know just what I'm talking about.